It’s never been easy for the Brooklyn Nets, seemingly always a part of the National Basketball Association’s metaphorical kids’ table at Thanksgiving dinner.
The team, in its 43-year NBA history since coming into the league during the 1976 merger with the American Basketball Association, has lost considerably more than it has won. The Nets have no NBA championships to their name, and the franchise has forever existed in the long shadow of the crosstown New York Knicks, which despite a long series of on- and off-court miscues of their own, under unpopular owner James Dolan, continue to enjoy immense fan popularity.
The Nets’ 2012 move from New Jersey to Brooklyn and the Barclays Center brought a new logo and brand, and a sleek, modern new building. But the uphill climb remained, and by 2017 the team sank to the very bottom of the NBA standings. Fans stayed away in increasing numbers, and are yet to come back in force. Despite reaching the playoffs last season for the first time in four seasons, the Nets posted the NBA’s lowest per-game attendance of any team at 14,941.
But in a matter of a few short weeks this past summer, the team’s fortunes have changed to the point where it is no longer just a local team-rebuilding story, but a story with global implications across the league and sports industry at large.
Joe Tsai, Alibaba co-founder and previously a minority owner of the Nets under lead investor Mikhail Prokhorov, in August gained the 51- per-cent equity of the team he didn’t already own in valuing the club at $2.35bn (€2.14bn). The valuation represents the most expensive pro sports team sale in US history. Gaining full control of the Barclays Center added about another $1.15bn, bringing the total value of Tsai’s takeover to $3.5bn.
Tsai then installed former Turner president and well-regarded and deeply connected television executive David Levy to oversee his entire sprawling J Tsai Sports empire that, in addition to the Nets and Barclays Center, includes the Women’s National Basketball Association’s New York Liberty, as well as interests in lacrosse, soccer, and various sports media and technology companies.
The Nets’ roster also received a big boost in the off-season with the free agent signings of league stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Durant is expected to be out of action for most, if not all, of the upcoming season recovering from injury. But the promise of the former league most valuable player being in Brooklyn for the next four years has helped spark franchise record-level ticket and merchandise sales.
But league officials see even bigger opportunities with Tsai at the helm in Brooklyn given his experience building Alibaba into a global e-commerce juggernaut, and background across several areas of digital media and technology. The NBA has lofty ambitions with regard to worldwide expansion, particularly in Asia. In the US, the league has already well positioned itself as an industry thought leader in technology and social media. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said many of those goals are now primed for acceleration with Tsai in place with a much bigger role in Brooklyn.
“He is one of the best-known media, Internet, and technology executives in China,” Silver said. “He is a passionate basketball and sports fan. He not only wants to win, but he wants to operate a first-class organisation.
“I think he’ll add enormous value to the entire league, not just because of his business operations in China, but again, because he’s a visionary media executive,” he said.
If all ultimately goes well, one might see the Nets and their brand rise, culminating in a true worldwide following, similar to how other marquee teams such as the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, and Golden State Warriors have become key tools in building overseas NBA fandom. It’s also likely the Nets in their new regime will be a trailblazer in testing and deploying new technologies for experiencing sports in-venue, at home, and on-the-go.
“We have a tremendous opportunity to capture the growth of sports globally,” Levy said. “J Tsai Sports is in a unique position to leverage our global resources and a strong portfolio of sports, entertainment, and technology holdings to create value for our existing franchises as well as invest in new ventures for growth.”
Don’t expect the Nets to stay at the kids’ table much longer.